Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Recap of my first gravel grinder race

Photo by Jessica Lee/courtesy of Spinistry
Race director/Spinistry founder Kevin Lee runs down the details before the start of Texas Chainring Massacre on Feb. 10 in Valley View. 

While it is true that I have a couple of half-marathons coming up, my focus lately is riding my bikes in preparation for 24 Hours in the Canyon. June is well in the distance, but one does need to prepare for such endurance events. And one of the more fun ways to prep for a big race is by entering some smaller races. Ten-or-so days ago, @24inthecanyon tweeted about the Texas Chainring Massacre. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the race (with the most bitchin' name in all of cycling) was coming up and was only an hour from my 'hood. I had to race it.

First, let me explain what TCM is and what it isn't. The race is produced by Spinistry, which specializes in endurance/ultra-endurance rides on a variety of courses, but especially unpaved surfaces. TCM is held on mostly gravel country roads and some paved FM roads. It is not a race for dudes who rock Cervelo P5s. The best bike for a gravel grinder race is a cyclocross rig; to really over-simplify, CX bikes are similar to road bikes but they have off-road tires capable of rolling over rocks, dirt, mud and roadkill (which I saw plenty of on Sunday). Most of the racers at TCM rocked CX bikes, several single-speed rigs. I rode my hardtail mountain bike, which can handle the rough roads just fine but is about 10 pounds heavier and 5-10 mph slower than the average CX bike. My goal was to get some quality saddle time on my MTB and see what tweaks I need to make to my training, fuel and/or gear.

The night before the race, significant rain descended upon the Dallas-Fort Worth area, including Valley View/Cooke County, the location of the race. Flooding in portions of the 78-mile race course forced the race director to run the race on the same course as the 50-mile fun ride. So at 9:15 a.m., all 114 riders pedaled off into a less-than-welcome 17 mph wind with gusts in the 20s. In a word, it sucked. The first handful of miles were on access roads and asphalt, but they were tough sledding with the wind smacking us in our faces. There's an abundance of farm land and fields in Cooke County but not many trees or structures along the roads to mellow the whipping wind — probably the worst obstacle on the front half of the race.

Photo by Jessica Lee/courtesy of Spinistry
The key to riding gravel is following the tire tracks of cars and trucks, which are fairly clear of sizable rocks. If you follow that line, riding is considerably easier. Otherwise, it's gonna be a bumpy ride.

The area was surprisingly hilly, too. The rocky roads only ramped up the difficulty level. As CX riders nimbly negotiated the hills, holes and rough patches, I plodded along, trying to coax my bike to move faster than I could run. It was a challenge at times, and it sure was tempting to downshift into the granny gear. But I toughed it out and stayed away from the tiny chainring. I pedaled comfortably in the larger gears on the flats and the smaller climbs.

I paid attention to my hand positioning throughout the ride. I am trying out a new set of grips, Ergon GP1, in hopes of not aggravating the ulnar nerve issues I've had in the past while mountain biking. So far the grips are doing the trick. I also am testing new fuel options. I gave dates a whirl at TCM. They were a delicious, semisweet pick-me-up that I popped every 15-20 minutes. I think they may be a winner; they're certainly easier to eat than my trued-and-true tortillas!

Photo by Jessica Lee/courtesy of Spinistry
As is true with any bike race or triathlon, ogling bad-ass bikes is part of the fun. I saw so many sweet rides. And while I won't invest in a CX bike soon, I can definitely see their benefits on this terrain. 

The race included a mandatory check-in at the support station. The planned 78-mile race would have had two stations where racers could refuel on the food they placed in their drop bags. I like this option for a race. It allows the event organizer to keep costs down (thus an inexpensive entry fee) and you're guaranteed the station will have something you can eat and drink. I didn't pack drop bags because I wanted to keep everything in my Camelbak. Now, that's not to say that I didn't have a couple dozen animal crackers and some candy orange slices. They were greatly appreciated at the 26 mile marker — half way point of the race.

The back half of the race greeted riders with more asphalt and a friendly tailwind. It also was filled with more climbing. I can't speak for everyone, but considering the wind and the weight of my bike, those 50 miles were just as difficult as riding the Hotter'N Hell 100. Cycling so slowly on rocky gravel and often with no one around you and nothing to look at demands mental fortitude. I'm pleased that I was able to stick it out. I stayed positive by appreciating the fact that I was getting to race on such a beautiful, blue-sky day. I stared at the gravel during the long, tough climbs when I didn't want to know how much farther until the road leveled out. I thought about how tough The Texas Time Trials were. I admired, smiled and said hello to the cows, horses, massive dogs and goats that broke up the stretches of empty acreage. According to the results, about 30 racers/riders DNFed.  I finished 49th out of 59 racers, a majority of whom weren't riding MTBs (stating that just for the record ... oh, and yes, for my pride's sake, too). The timing isn't official yet. By my watch, it took me about 4:15 to complete the race. I'll take it!

Photo by Jessica Lee/courtesy of Spinistry
Such a gorgeous day for cycling on a new route and testing one's mettle. 

So, with months to go until 24:00, I feel good about my fitness, especially considering how sick I was a couple of weeks ago. And it was outstanding to learn about this whole new world of racing in North Texas. I highly recommend signing up for a Spinistry event. They are fun, few-frills (good swag bag), cost less than most rallies/races and offer unique challenges. You won't be disappointed.

1 comment:

That Pink Girl said...

Tough conditions but you are certainly tougher. It's not the race but the training that shapes is, defines us. You are more than willing to put in the time and sweat required to be extraordinary and you've shown that over and over!
June will bring big things for you. We're just lucky to get to watch it happen!